This isn’t going to be thoughts on the actual issue; I made the decision back in about April 2007 (during the execrable ‘Countdown to Final Crisis’ and ‘Amazons Attack’) that I wasn’t going to be spending any more money on DC’s comics without a wholesale shakeup of their senior management. Apart from a few good reviews of the ‘Omega Men’ reboot and some passionate defenses of ‘Final Crisis’, I’ve heard absolutely nobody telling me I made a mistake here.
It’s also worth emphasizing that these are solely my thoughts on the subject; I’m sure MGK has his own opinions, which may or may not coincide with mine, and he may make his own post on the subject at some point. Oh yes, and I’m going to install a spoiler tag for those who want to read the issue but haven’t.
But there are still some interesting tidbits to be gleaned from the perspective of someone who isn’t directly involved in the week-to-week minutiae of the DC Universe. For starters, let’s look at the title, which is fascinating in and of itself. “Rebirth” is a subtitle appended to two previous well-received and high-profile DC projects written by Geoff Johns, both of which were explicitly intended to take a major property that Johns felt was mishandled to the point of disaster and restore them to their original state. Given that Johns has been given ever-increasing amounts of authority over the DC Universe during his tenure, this may be the closest we ever come to getting his unvarnished opinion on the New 52.
As with the other “Rebirth” projects, there’s an explicit call not just to nostalgia but to Johns’ personal nostalgia; just as Green Lantern brought back Hal and Flash brought back Barry, here we get a return of the original Wally West. And just as Green Lantern sidelined a biracial character in favor of a white dude from an era where comics defaulted to whiteness, so does this sideline a biracial character in favor of a white dude from an era where comics defaulted to whiteness. I don’t think this is a sign of anything to do with Johns’ personal racial politics, but I do think it highlights an ongoing and persistent issue with recasting legacy characters in minority roles in an industry that has historically been greatly resistant to permanent change. I think DC (and Marvel for that matter) is going to have to at some point acknowledge that if they’re going to do this, they’re going to have to commit to it. Half-heartedly inserting diversity into their comics only to retreat on it the second it proves to be less than fully popular is in some ways worse than no diversity at all.
Of course, I’m sort of burying the lede here, because the big revelation is that the Watchmen are behind this. (Or at least Doctor Manhattan, who gets a bunch of new superpowers solely so that he can be the architect of all the DCU’s woes.) A lot of people are pointing to the significance of this on a metatextual level, but I think it’s worth mentioning that it only makes sense on a metatextual level; trying to connect Doctor Manhattan at the end of ‘Watchmen’, with his renewed faith in the value of human life and his desire to shepherd a new species to a brighter and more wonderful destiny to a mustache-twirling supervillain who represents cynicism and “steals time” from the DC superheroes to make their universe worse is pretty much impossible unless you explicitly admit that yes, this is about Geoff Johns bitching that comics got too grimdark in the 80s. (Which is pretty fucking rich coming from someone who wrote a seven-issue miniseries of solid goreporn, but we’ll set aside my feelings on ‘Blackest Night’ for now. And on his treatment of Per Degaton in ‘JSA’. And on his treatment of the Ultra-Humanite in ‘JSA’. And on Superboy Prime punching someone’s head clean off in ‘Infinite Crisis’. And on his gruesome on-panel murder of the original Golden Age Superman, a character that Marv Wolfman couldn’t bring himself to kill even when he erased his entire continuity from existence–for fucksake, the entire “death of Superman at the hands of characters repurposed as metatextual avatars of the grimdarkness of the 80s” is ripped off from himself a decade ago, why should we take him at his word that this time is going to be any better? How can someone be so utterly lacking in self-awareness as to lay all the blame for comics they spent sixteen years writing at the hands of someone who hasn’t worked for DC voluntarily since 1986? How–)
(Right. Setting aside.)
The problem is, once you’ve established that the ‘Watchmen’ characters are purely metatextual here, there’s an ugly alternative reading that establishes itself. Alan Moore hasn’t publicly commented on this yet (I keep picturing comics journalists saying, “Do you want to be the one to tell him?”) but given that the other thing ‘Watchmen’ predominantly symbolizes is the notion that DC will find a way to exploit the loopholes in any good-faith contract in order to continue profiting off of a work long after the relationship with the creator has soured to the point of non-existence. Basically, if the Watchmen are supposed to be purely symbolic, it’s pretty easy to construct a reading where we should be rooting for them to tear down the entire rotting edifice of the DC Universe and free its inhabitants.
Oh wow. Channeled Phil Sandifer there for a second.
It’s also worth wondering what kind of long-term implications this may have. After all, despite enjoying an unearned thirty-year extension to their ownership of the Watchmen series and characters, sooner or later market saturation will send that series out of print if nothing else does. At that point, will they no longer be able to reprint this book? Will they have to rewrite events so that Captain Brooklyn, or Mister Queens is responsible? Or will they just write a new story where Alan Moore himself is responsible for all the DC Universe’s flaws? It’s enough to make me want to start a ‘Watchmen’ boycott just to see the chaos unfold.
Oh, and as to the other “big revelation”, apparently the World’s Greatest Detective has never done a DNA test on his arch-nemesis. Or a fingerprint test. Suffice to say I am giving this one all the side-eye in the goddamn world.
On the whole, this special has done nothing to disabuse me of the notion that DC’s entire editorial strategy for the last twelve years has been nothing but one flailing lurch after another to whatever will get them the biggest headlines on Newsarama–not simply a focus on the short-term but an active contempt for any kind of long-term thinking, a plan that refuses to think any further ahead than the next Big Event and the next shock moment. In that sense, this is surprising only in that they managed to find one more taboo to violate long after I thought they had run out, one last thing that they could do in order to get the headline, “DC Does Something You Never Expected.” I can’t say I care, but I am at least faintly impressed by that alone.